October 25, 2013

Can students from American schools compete internationally?

Is America falling behind the rest of the world in education? Credit: mwhatley / Flickr Creative Commons

Guests:

Harvard Professor Paul Peterson and Former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn have been studying the American education system for a long time. What they've observed is a disturbing trend.

 "We had the greatest schools in the 19th century and the early 20th century," said Peterson. "We had elementary education before any other country. We had high schools before any other country. We built colleges before any other country."

But in the 1970s, the momentum changed. 

"We put our feet up in the air and relaxed, and the rest of the world starting catching up to us," said Peterson.

Since the 1970s, American public schools have fallen behind.

American students - once the most competitive in the world, have fallen behind in key areas like literacy, math, and problem-solving, according to a new report from the OECD. Credit: James F. Clay / Flickr Creative Commons

A recent report on education from the OECD shows American students have fallen behind in math, literacy, and problem solving. High school graduation rates - another former strong point for American schools - have also fallen behind. 

Peterson and Finn lament that this complacency has translated to a society that doesn't seem to take school that seriously.

"We don't take high school seriously because there are no serious consequences for not doing well in high school," says Finn. "We care about football and extracurriculars. In other countries, students care about learning and graduating and getting in to college."

Peterson and Finn offer solutions.

Fixing education may require measures like reducing student-teacher ratios, according to Peterson and Finn. Credit: Phil Roeder / Flickr Creative Commons

What can be done to boost flagging American schools? Peterson looks to changing the credentials required for teachers so that more of the best and brightest young graduates are attracted to the profession. Finn also focuses on teachers, but approaches from a different angle. In recent years, he says, there has been a trend to reduce the ratio of students to teachers: at mid-century, that number was about 27:1; today it's 14:1. 

Though counterintuitive, Finn argues that these lower ratios have actually not improved the quality of education. By raising them back up, teacher's salaries could be raised, attracting more competitive graduates to the profession. "We need a superior cadre of able, knowledgeable people, which a lot of other countries have concentrated on getting," says Finn.

To hear more from Peterson and Finn's diagnosis of the American education system - including how race and class factor in to the education divide - tune in to our full interview above.

Still curious? 

college graduates, higher ed, college, competitiveness, elementary school, high school, Education, university, Body and Mind, Culture

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